OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Saying new Ottawa County commissioners clearly violated the spirit of the Open Meetings Act but not its letter, the Michigan attorney general is proposing changes to that law.
In a virtual news conference Thursday, Attorney General Dana Nessel said her office could not find an “actionable violation” of the Open Meetings Act or related laws by a slate of new conservative Ottawa County commissioners who in their first meeting of the year amended the agenda to oust the county administrator and public health officer and close the county’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department, among other things.
“The actions of some of the members of the Ottawa County Board of Commissions clearly demonstrate a violation of the spirit of the Open Meetings Act and a blatant violation of public trust and the tenets of government transparency,” Nessel, a Democrat, said. “It’s apparent that certain incoming members of the board met prior to the Jan. 3, 2023, meeting to discuss the motto change, termination of the public health officer, corporation counsel, elimination of the DEI program and hiring of a new legal counsel, and this was all done outside of the public view and to execute their will without any public interference.”
Despite the “pretty egregious actions” of the board, she said, it doesn’t appear members technically violated the law. She said she also couldn’t file a civil lawsuit based on the law as it stands now.
“The OMA is intended to protect the right of all Michigan residents to know what goes on in government by shedding light on the official acts of public bodies and enhancing responsible decision making, thus providing government accountability, but it’s not without fault,” Nessel said.
In response, she said she’s proposing that the Open Meetings Act be amended in two ways: first, to require public bodies to post notice of and an agenda for a public meeting at least 48 hours in advance and to limit bodies’ ability to modify that agenda except in urgent circumstances. Second, she says the definition of the term “public official” should be changed to include people who have been elected or appointed to public office but not yet been sworn in.
Her office explained that because the commissioners met before they were sworn in, they couldn’t be considered in illegal closed session and therefore in violation of the law.
“OMA needs to be strengthened, there’s no question about it. It needs more teeth and it needs more specificity so that the law can be properly enforced and so that the people of this state know that their government officials are acting with appropriate transparency,” Nessel said.
She said her office would also make recommendations to the state Legislature about broadening the Freedom of Information Act. She has been in contact with state lawmakers to get the proposed changes written and introduced.
“The Michigan Association of Counties also has resources for new and for inexperienced county commissioners to ensure that they’re the best public servants that they can be,” she said.
PUBLIC REACTION TO BOARD REMAINS MIXED
At the commissioner’s regular meeting Thursday, nearly half of the more than four-hour meeting was taken up by public comment. A main point of contention was the board’s efforts to install Nathaniel Kelly as the public health officer, replacing Adeline Hambley. Kelly has been critical of coronavirus mitigation measures like wearing masks and social distancing. Hambley has sued the commissioners over her ouster even as she is still doing the job.
“Adeline has worked 19 years and built a career and to have new commissioners come in and derail her career on erroneous, revengeful, spiteful actions just to plug in a candidate who aligns with their belief system,” commenter Dan Zimmer said.
Another commenter was skeptical about Kelly’s qualifications, saying the school from which he got his degree is not properly accredited and that he doesn’t have enough managerial experience.
Other commenters said they believed the board was doing what was right for the people of the county and that Hambley was too reliant on the policies promoted by state and federal health officials that they disagreed with.
“When you put community interest above individual rights, you are forwarding communism. And I know it sounds extreme to say something like that but it sneaks in very suddenly under all sorts of flowery language. I don’t think a lot of people realize what we’re losing here in this country,” Richard Dausman, who supports the board, said.
Nessel said her office had gotten more letters and emails from citizens about the actions of the board than it has ever gotten for any other single public body.
She offered some suggestions for what citizens could do when they object to the actions of elected officials. She said citizens may sue a public body under the Open Meetings Act to challenge the validity of its decisions or seek a court order requiring compliance with the law or preventing further noncompliance. She said citizens could also reach out to the Michigan Department of Treasury‘s Community Engagement and Finance Division at 517.335.7469 if they are worried about how the county is spending money. Citizens can also file to recall elected officials with whom they are unsatisfied after the officials’ first six months in office.
“If (the board’s actions were) not illegal because of a technicality, certainly I think many of us find it to be nefarious in nature and unethical,” Nessel said.
—News 8’s Meghan Bunchman contributed to this report.